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Territorial lawyers talk the good old days at annual dinner

By Michael Carey

(From the July-September, 2004 Alaska Bar Rag)

Alaska's territorial lawyers - joined by lawyers who have practiced in the state 40 years or more - held their annual gathering July 27. This year the group met at Anchorage's Petroleum Club for a buffet. More than 50 people were present.

Most of the lawyers were members or former members of the Anchorage bar including Ken Atkinson, Roger Cremo, Jim Delaney, Bob Erwin, Bob Ely, Joe Henri, John Strachan, David Ruskin and Gene Williams. Among those from outside Anchorage were Barry Jackson and Charlie Cole of Fairbanks and Jamie Fisher of Kenai. Many of the lawyers brought spouses and guests. Widows of lawyers of yesteryear were in attendance as well

Memories of the best and the worst of the territorial and early statehood era were in abundance. The best was the number of outstanding lawyers, the friends and allies made, and the sense of adventure - the opportunity to practice law where both the communities and the law were new. The worst was the inadequacies of the federal territorial system.

In 1955, as Roger Cremo remembers, a young lawyer could meet a man like George Grigsby, who had begun practicing when Teddy Roosevelt was president and still had a shingle out while Dwight Eisenhower was in his second term. Grigsby first practiced in Nome in 1902, where he was city attorney, and later was territorial attorney general (1916-1919). He also was in private practice in Juneau, Ketchikan, and Anchorage. For a young lawyer, Grigsby was a master of the law and compelling story teller.

Barry Jackson, who came to Alaska in 1958, remembers that when he arrived "the criminal cases had priority." Jackson never had a civil case under Judge Vernon D. Forbes of Fairbanks, the last federally-appointed district judge in Fairbanks while Alaska was a territory.

Charlie Cole, Forbes' first law clerk, noted that Forbes' patron was William Langer of North Dakota, elected to the U.S. Senate four times. Judges sent from "the states" always had a patron. Forbes seems to have been competent enough, but he made no friends in 1955 when he openly accused the Alaska legal profession of a "low standard of ethics." The occasion for his remark was a disbarment hearing, but he mostly seems to have been exercised by critics of Judge George W. Folta of Juneau. Folta had a running feud with lawyer-legislator Warren Taylor of Fairbanks, expressed openly in the newspapers.

In retrospect, Forbes' charge seems unfair, but the territorial lawyers conceded there was a certain amount of legal sloppiness, especially in probate and estate matters. Some probate cases dragged on for years, usually because there were no heirs in Alaska to push for closing. The heirs of a North Dakota man who died in Fairbanks in 1941 received a closing check only after John F. Kennedy was elected president.

If as Barry Jackson suggests, "criminal cases had priority" there was a reason - criminals kept the court busy. For all the growth and prosperity Anchorage and Fairbanks enjoyed during the Cold War, they could be tough towns. A newspaper story from the Golden Heart City describes a prostitute chasing an airman down Cushman St., the main route into the city, shooting at him as he pulled on his pants in what the reporter called "a dispute over personal services." Territorial court records show local police repeatedly used vagrancy laws to harass prostitutes. One woman in Fairbanks, who went by three different names, was arrested on vagrancy charges three times in one day. Indictments also could remain open indefinitely. In a celebrated Fairbanks case, the murder of businessman Cecil Wells, Johnny Warren was indicted in 1953 but never brought to trial. The indictment was not dismissed until 1960, after Alaska became a state.

Russell Arnett recalls the importance of the U.S. commissioners to the territorial legal system - having been one himself for 10 months in Nome. The commissioners handled misdemeanors, probate, marriage, and divorce as well as sanity hearings. Sanity hearings were of obvious importance yet were subject to abuse - a fair reading of territorial records suggests that before World War II, on occasion those who went to the authorities to express concern about a neighbor's sanity were motivated by revenge.

Commissioners varied widely in education, ability, and commitment to the job. They were not required to be lawyers. It's common to read about commissioners who were dismissed for dereliction of duty; it's also common to find commissioners who made Herculean efforts to provide justice. For example, several commissioners involved in estate cases went to great lengths to find heirs as far away as Europe and Australia. On occasion, these heirs were convinced their Alaska relative died rich, an assertion that moved Commissioner Gus Benson of Manley Hot Springs to explain to an heir that his uncle didn't own a gold mine - he owned a hole in the ground.

LaDessa Nordale of Fairbanks was one of the best of the Interior commissioners. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Idaho, she taught business administration at the University of Alaska in the Twenties before forced to give up her teaching career when she married - the president of the university did not believe married women should work. Lawyers who saw Mrs. Nordale in court remember she approached her work with care, maturity and discipline.

Some of the lawyers in attendance at the event were asked - a totally unscientific poll - "It's 1958. Who would you get to defend you if your life depended on it?" The totally unscientific answer was Wendell Kay (see photo insert) or Stanley McCutcheon. McCutcheon, born in Anchorage in 1917, "read law" with George Grigsby and was admitted to the bar in 1939 at age 21. He quickly went into politics winning election to the territorial House of Representatives - and taking the seat of his father, H. H. McCutcheon, who was elected to the Senate. Stanley McCutcheon was both the youngest territorial House member and youngest speaker. After statehood, he was a member of the Alaska Bar Association Board of Governors.

What made McCutcheon such an outstanding lawyer? "He hadn't been to law school and wasn't saddled by the orthodoxy of legal educations" says territorial lawyer Kenneth Atkinson. "He always thought outside the box. Plus, he was naturally gracious and had a great court room presence."

While Stanley McCutcheon was born in Alaska, most territorial lawyers came from "the states." Kenneth Atkinson was a young man from Iowa. Joe Henri from New York State. Henri and his wife, Aletha, married after meeting on a blind date in Washington D.C., where he worked for Sen. Ernest Gruening. Dinner the night before the wedding was at Gruening's house - and the next day Sen. Gruening gave away the bride.

The late Cliff Groh also was from New York State, although he came to Alaska in 1952 from Albuquerque, where he had attended the University of New Law School. Lucy Groh, his widow, remembers "He said he wanted to go to Alaska for a couple of weeks. I landed here in the middle of the night with no idea I would stay."

What was the Anchorage the Grohs settled in like? Lou Jacobin, whose "Guide to Alaska" rivaled the "Milepost" in influence during the Fifties described Anchorage as follows:

"Today estimates of the population of the entire Anchorage area range as high as 65,000 people. Today's Anchorage is a fabulous, sometimes strange metropolis. It is a mixture of the Old Frontier and the Machine Age - a city where a sled pulled by a team of yelping Malamutes can be seen alongside a 1956-model automobile. It is a town peopled by both sourdoughs and sophisticates, trappers and bankers, parka-clad Eskimos and gals in evening gowns."

This was the Anchorage many of the territorial lawyers and their guests remembered - in an era they recalled with affection and humor.


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